The McKinney verdict He said, she said: Jury decision reflective of evidence, not Army's attitudes toward women.

March 18, 1998

THE EXONERATION of Sgt. Maj. Gene C. McKinney on charges of sexual misconduct -- though surprising, given that six females independently claimed he groped and crudely propositioned them -- may be seen as a bad moment for women, but it should not necessarily be viewed as a step backward for women in the armed services.

The Army took this case seriously, suspending McKinney, its highest-ranking enlisted man, when complaints were lodged. Then it prosecuted him in a court-martial it called the most important in 20 years.

The verdict -- McKinney was acquitted of 18 of 19 charges -- was not a matter of Army policy. It was the work of a jury that gave no indication of being biased in a case that was mainly circumstantial. In civilian as well as military courtrooms where the burden of proof is on the prosecution, juries often are reluctant to convict in "he said, she said" cases such as this.

It is noteworthy that the lone finding of guilt for obstruction of justice was supported by physical evidence -- a tape recording in which McKinney tells one of the defendants to say nothing inappropriate happened between them. The lack of other hard evidence, coupled with McKinney's long record as a good soldier and his unequivocal denials on the stand, conspired to produce a verdict and sentence favorable to the defense: The jury reduced his rank, but McKinney will escape jail time.

The verdict was somewhat surprising. The number of plaintiffs, the similarity of their stories and the fact that they did not meet each other until after the trial seemed to weigh in the prosecution's favor. Also, if the jury believed McKinney tried to persuade one of the women to lie, it would seem to follow logically that there must have been something to lie about.

But juries are not bound by syllogistic rules. This panel was unwilling to convict McKinney of the more serious charges on the accusers' word alone. That is any jury's privilege, and must be respected. The justice system ran its course. The outcome was not neat and did not fully satisfy anyone. Military or civilian, our court system sometimes works that way.

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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